IRVING, N.Y. -- A half-cenutry ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Kinzua Dam in the middle of the Allegany Territory, removing hundreds of members of the Seneca Nation from their homes in Western New York.
President John F. Kennedy, in a letter to the Seneca Nation in 1961, acknowledged the severe consequences of the project. But he did not waver: "The need for flood protection downstream is real and immediate," he wrote in the letter, directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue construction on the dam despite fierce opposition from the Seneca Nation.
More than 50 years later, the term "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" still evokes deep emotions from Maurice John, the current president of the Seneca Nation.
"The Army Corps of Engineers," John said, "has a history in the Seneca Nation."
That history prompted John and other members of the Seneca Nation to travel 1,400 miles this month to Cannon Ball, N.D., the epicenter of national protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. More than 200 tribes have joined with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in this remote region of North Dakota to object to the construction of Energy Transfer Partners' $3.7 billion project, which would span four states in the Great Plains and Midwest, crossing through sacred ancestral Native American lands and potentially impacting their water supply if an oil spill were to occur.
The project's permit was approved by an agency of the federal government: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"They took 10,000 acres of our land in 1964," John said, "So it's very important for us to take a strong stand and let everyone know where we come from and why we're there."
John spent three days in North Dakota earlier this month, joining a delegation of eight other tribes from the Northwest as they stood united against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In all, the Seneca Nation has sent more than a dozen representatives to the protests, including three first responders to help with medical situations.
Since April, thousands and thousands of people have joined the Standing Rock Sioux in their protest. On Sept. 9, a judge ruled against the tribe in its request for an injunction to stop construction of the pipeline. However, in a surprise move, three federal agencies issued their own statement on the very same day, calling for a halt of construction on Army Corps land. The U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Justice have now directed the Army Corps of Engineers to revisit the permit it approved for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
With winter approaching, the pipeline's future is as uncertain as ever, but the protests have not stopped. The Seneca Nation, in fact, just sent a new group to North Dakota. They arrived this weekend.
"I think the unity of all nations -- all native nations in the United States -- has really shown through. I hope that it can keep continuing," John said.
The federal government's move to block construction has infuriated Energy Transfer Partners, which claims on its website that the 1,172-mile pipeline would create 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs.
"The pipeline will translate into millions in state and local revenues during the construction phase and an estimated $129 million annually in property and income taxes," according to the company's website. "The pipeline will generate an estimated $50 million annually in property taxes and nearly $74 million in sales taxes to the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois – for services to support schools, roads, emergency services and more."
The company argues that the pipeline is a safer way to transport oil.
But Native American tribes and environmentalists have argued that a pipeline leak could still pose a disastrous threat to their drinking water, pointing to the recent situation in Alabama.
"We're talking about crude oil, and the very bad thing about a pipeline like that-- it's not if it's going to leak... it's when," John said. "And when you're crossing under a river like the Missouri River, it could affect many, many people downstream, including a lot of native nation."
Certainly, the Dakota Access Pipeline is much different than the Kinzua Dam. They are two entirely different projects, built for entirely different reasons, proposed during two entirely different eras in history.
But there are enough similarities to remind the Seneca Nation of the pain of 1964, which lingers constantly. On Saturday, the Senecas even held their annual "Remember The Removal Walk" in honor of the people whose lives and homes were destroyed by the Kinzua Dam.
So that's why, every few seconds, an electronic sign in Irving flashes the following message: "Seneca Nation Stands With Standing Rock." The same message hangs from an overpass over the Thruway on the Seneca Nation territory.
John himself now wears a pin from the Standing Rock Sioux on his hat.
"They're just defending the artifacts," John said, "and remains of their people."
Just as the Seneca Nation did so many years ago.